Heartbreak established iconic old time music venue

Nick Shepherd • Aug 14, 2017 at 9:30 AM

HILTONS  — A.P. Carter was heartbroken. He and his wife, Sara, had divorced after a long separation because she had an affair with his cousin.

It was the end of a long and successful run for Carter. He had formed the Carter Family Band with Sara and her cousin Maybelle, who was married to A.P.'s brother Ezra. In August 1927, the group traveled to Bristol to record some music for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Those recordings became known as the Bristol Sessions and are considered the beginning of modern country music.

At the time of his divorce and the breakup of the Carter Family Band, Carter was living in Texas and working in Mexico. In 1943, he decided to retire from the music business. Sara moved to California and Carter moved back to his home in Hiltons, Virginia, with his children.

He set about raising his children and opened a small grocery store. But music never left him.

"My grandpa, when I was a little girl, started what he called music programs in a little place he just called the park," said Rita Forrester, A.P.'s granddaughter and director of the Carter Family Fold. "It was a cleared spot at the base of Clinch Mountain on his property right behind the fold."

He had a rough stage with a few benches around it. There were not a lot of people who came and Carter did not do the programs for a very long period of time because of ailing health. But Carter had the vision of bringing the music back to where it first began, Scott County.

Right before he passed in 1960, he asked his middle child, Janette, to try to do something to carry on the music when he was gone. Janette had three children at the time and waited until she got her son and Forrester through high school before fulfilling her father's wishes.

Janette took the one room store Carter had run as a grocery store and cleaned it up. Then in 1974, she started Saturday concerts inside the store. There were so many people for the first performance, they could not all fit inside the one room. The performance was moved outside to the front porch.

"It didn't take long for the shows to outgrow that little one room of the store," Forrester said.

As the crowds swelled, Carter's children knew they had to do something to accommodate them. So Janette, Gladys and Joe went in together to build what would later be called the Carter Family Fold.

They built a large building that slopes up the hillside, looking every bit like it was carved into the side of a mountain. Originally, all it had were dirt floors and old crossties that everyone would sit on.

The music center has been upgraded a number of times throughout the years. Now when the crowds arrive for a Saturday night concert, they dance on a concrete floor and sit in stadium-style seats. People can buy concessions or purchase Carter Family memorabilia.

Carter's grocery store was turned into a museum, and the cabin Carter was born in was moved onto the property. Both are historic landmarks.

Forrester has worked diligently to keep her family's history, as well as the music of the mountains, alive for future generations.

On a Saturday night in July, people filed into the music center of the Fold. The smell of popcorn filled the air. Forrester approached a microphone on stage and gave a little history of the Fold and introduced the band.

Before the band started playing, she asked for people to raise their hands when she read the name of a city or hometown, and whoever had come the farthest received a prize. On that particular evening, a group from New Zealand took home the prize.

When the music started, a tappity-tap-tap can be heard off stage. It was not coming from a drum but rather from a gentleman dressed in jeans and a blue polo with a head full of white hair. Taps were on the bottom of his shoes and he was performing a dance that stretched back centuries, to another land across the Atlantic Ocean.

"I didn't realize it so much until we went to Europe and I saw them dancing an Irish jig," she said. "I thought, 'That's exactly what they do at the Fold.' They call it the Clinch Mountain Dance Step, but it definitely came from an Irish jig."

More people joined in on the dance floor and the taps from the dancers helped keep the beat to the music. Children, teenagers, middle-aged and elderly people flashed smiles as the music continued into the night.

It is safe to say the legacy Carter asked his daughter to create is alive and well. And so is the music.

"It's amazing how much they did to touch other people and to change the face of music," Forrester said.